I have spent years going over our past, untangling memories from dreams, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when fate sealed. The easiest place to start is with the most blatant mistake: our mother, Jenny, kept the matchbooks in the junk drawer. Amongst paperclips and rubber bands, bent spoons and thumbtacks, the glossy sheen attracted the kitchen light, creating an irresistible enticement. The logos on the covers hinted at Jenny’s fairy-tale existence—the outline of a slender woman dancing, knee lifted high; two champagne flutes clinked together, surrounded by bubbles; a cartoon trout wearing a top hat and blowing a tuba. I loved to sound out the names: Blue Moon, Miranda’s, Larry’s Lagoon. But that’s where my interest stopped, with these little girl fantasies of my mother as a glamorous star.
For Delphie, the draw was more tangible. A smart kid, he waited until Jenny was preoccupied, as she so often was then. Opening the drawer slowly, he snaked his hand inside and slipped a matchbook into the pocket of his jeans, where it blistered until he could sneak out back. Sometimes he prolonged the wait for hours, even entire days, imagining the glorious freedom of being thirteen and alone, the sun on the back of his neck, a light breeze lifting the hem of his t-shirt, the quick gesture and then the spark, the sudden, perfect flame. He would replay the scene over and over as he lay in bed. Behind closed eyelids, he found release: the flame grew into the beautiful phoenix he knew was inside, a torrent of red and orange and sizzling blue, winged, fanged, dangerous. His.
In reality, behind the shed where he crouched on dirt so hard his tennis shoes left no print, next to the balding willow and the creek that ran brown and smelled of sewage, he had to stop just as the moment got good. He dropped the match, ground the fire out with the heel of his shoe, kicked away the evidence.
I watched him from my bedroom window. Sometimes I followed. I never told Jenny. Long after she had left for the evening, her perfume clung to the upstairs hall, a musky ghost more real than her hands or face or voice. I breathed in deeply, but I knew my allegiance.
Once, when I was six, he lit a match for me. It was late October in New York and everything was dying. I could not avoid crunching the leaves. When I rounded the back of the shed, I found him waiting, his feet planted far apart, his arms crossed high, no matches in sight. I braced myself for punches. He called me stupid. He called me annoying. He said no one liked me, and when I started to tear up, he said our father left because I cried all the time. But he did not send me away. His stance loosened, his hands falling, feeling for the back pocket where he kept the matches as his tirade slowed and stopped. Together we watched the sun lower over the Davidsons’ backyard, the light briefly casting the brown creek in gold.
Delphie squatted. He picked up a mud-covered pebble and turned it over on his palm. I rose onto my toes and balanced, my arms outstretched above my head, the way Miss Templeton had taught us in ballet the Saturday before. Delphie snorted. I dropped onto the soles of my feet.
“I know what you do out here,” I said.
“No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, I do. But it’s okay. I won’t tell.”
His fist clenched around the pebble.
Over the trees, the sky turned into slate. Our mother was out dancing with Dr. Zarro and would not be home for hours. In the living room, our babysitter, Anna, worked on her calculus homework. She hated to be disturbed.
Delphie looked at me. Neither of us blinked. A wind blew through the yard, knocking the branches together.
“You’re cold,” Delphie said. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You should go in.”
“Only if you do.”
He stood and offered me his hand. As he pulled me close, I banged into his stomach. For a moment he held me, rubbing my shoulders. He smelled like Dial soap and Suave shampoo, like our bathroom, like me. But he smelled different, too, male, his sweat sharper and less sweet. He’d just turned fourteen.
“Delphie,” I said. “I want to see.”
He stepped away, taking all the warmth with him.
“Just one.” I tried to keep the whine out of my voice, to not be annoying. “I promise I won’t tell.”
“One,” he said, “and you never follow me again.”
I recognized the matchbook cover—black with thin, white letters. Maria’s, where I’d imagined Jenny in a sea-green, strapless gown, her dark hair piled on top of her head, eating spaghetti and drinking wine while violins serenaded her beauty. She could be there now, her stomach filled to aching.
“I’m ready,” I said, but I could tell Delphie wasn’t listening. He seemed far above me, moving farther.
There was a swift scratch, and then, like magic, a tiny, quivering flame. He lifted the match, illuminating his nervous eyes, his wet lips, and I thought of the pictures in my book of stories, the greedy face of the Big Bad Wolf. Delphie opened his mouth, and I expected him to place the fire on his tongue and swallow. The heat would fill him up, burning him from the inside out. His skin would glow. But he only laughed.
I reached for his arm.
“Stop!” he shouted.
He dropped the match and raised his foot. I felt the ground shake as he stamped down again and again.
“You saw,” he said, “now get out of here.”
But I couldn’t move.
“Now,” he snarled. I turned and ran into the house, past Anna sprawled on the sofa, up the stairs, into my bedroom, where I slammed the door, breathing hard.
A year later Delphie kept his courage and the shed went up in a dazzling, dizzying dream.
Courtney Elizabeth Mauk received an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and has published in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Superstition Review, among others. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine and teaches at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Manhattan with her husband.
Adapted from Spark by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk. Copyright © 2012 by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk. With the permission of the publisher, Engine Books.
Photo Credit: Lauren Slusher